Coronavirus Diary #33: Back to School…Again

Since January 6, I have been teaching from the comfort of our home office, wearing yoga pants and T-shirts, 13 year old Chester the golden retriever at my feet. Monday we return to the school building. This is Return to the Building #4, and if I’m going to be honest, I’m losing enthusiasm for all the back and forth.

I don’t disagree with any of the moves to remote or in-person learning that my school has made. In fact, when many schools last year were providing both in-person and remote learning in stereo, my school was strictly virtual, which at that period of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed prudent. Our school serves mostly low income families of color who reside in Detroit, one of the hardest hit communities and populations. Staying remote for the 2020-2021 school year protected not only our staff, but our students. In fact, most of our families were thankful to be remote during that period; most of our staff was, too.

However, our physical safety came at a cost. Many of our students (and students across the nation) suffered academically, emotionally, and socially during that first year and a half of the pandemic, whether they were in school or remote. Some would argue that large swaths of the population aged 18 and under (and many above that age) have suffered a trauma or even PTSD as a result of the pandemic, depending on the individual hardships they faced in terms of finances, food supply, family illness, and death. Being remote for the whole year meant that while our students were struggling through this very difficult time, we had limited access to them and a limited ability to provide supports such as social work, academic accommodations, food, and all the structure that students experience while in the physical school building.

Return #1 Last fall, when we determined to start the year fully in-person, our staff was fully on board. Of course we wanted our students back. We had access to vaccinations, we would all be wearing masks, and we would be taking all other CDC recommended precautions. Please, we said, bring the students back! And, back they came. Of course, they returned as though they’d been learning from home for a year and a half. Some came in loud and unruly. Some came in timidly, avoiding eye contact. Some came in carrying a palpable anxiety that sometimes gushed out in exclamations like, “I can’t be sitting so close to all these people!” We, nevertheless, stayed the course, providing structure, academics, and a return to routine. Day by day, week by week, we could see the students settling in, getting comfortable, returning to more typical teenaged behavior, beginning to engage in classroom activities, beginning to trust that we were “getting back to normal”.

Alas, in October, several staff tested positive — too many staff to cover with substitutes — so we had to move to remote learning for two weeks. We loaded our cars with ancillary screens and materials and changed into sweatpants and baseball caps. We logged into zoom rooms, were greeted by black boxes labelled with student names, and began screen sharing, communicating through the chat feature, and trying to incentivize attendance and participation.

Return #2 When the coast was clear, we lugged all our stuff back to the building and once again greeted our students. It had been a short break, one in which many students opted for a full vacation from academia. At this return, we jumped right back in, and students had to choose whether they were going to make up missed work, or just join the program already in progress. They settled in fairly quickly, but we continued to have a revolving door of students and staff coming and going due to Covid exposure or sickness. Nevertheless, we managed to pull off a Homecoming dance and a spirit week before we were once again sent home in early December.

It’s all become a blur, to tell you the truth. My students were writing college essays, I know that, and I was simultaneously keeping all my teacher plates spinning while also managing a gazillion family December birthdays and preparing for Christmas. To be honest, it was a blessing to be at home — to sleep a half an hour longer in the morning, to not have to drive, to receive packages when they were delivered, and to spend my days with Chester at my feet. Again, many students opted to start their Christmas vacation early, but some logged in each day and completed their assignments on time. All of us were pleased to take a two-week break for the holiday.

Return #3 Around Christmas the Omicron variant of Covid was spreading widely. By New Year’s Day, the buzz among educators was will we go back or not? Detroit Public Schools announced that they would delay their start for a couple of days to assess the situation and prepare a plan. Ann Arbor also delayed and then made a virtual start. It seemed prudent to proceed with caution since the case numbers were growing quickly, however, our leadership made the decision to start in person. Our students, like all students, do best when they are in the building. We had already been virtual for most of December; we really wanted to see if we could make in-person learning work.

We started on Monday with a professional development day. Tuesday was quite cold when we teachers took our stations at our doors, ready to go. Students arrived, but attendance was low. It wasn’t really a surprise. Many of our families had expressed concern about returning given the rise in cases and chose to keep their students at home. We came to school on Wednesday and Thursday, too, and then the decision was made, due to low in-person attendance and a high number of teachers who were calling off due to exposure, positive cases, or their own children needing to learn from home — we would return to virtual instruction that first Friday in January.

Cue the carrying of screens and materials to our cars.

We’ve been virtual for the remainder of January. We finished the first semester in the Zoom Room. Thanks to our incredible attendance team, our overall attendance in this virtual space was high — I’d say over 75% which is remarkable in our context. Engagement, of course, was everywhere across the spectrum. A few students showed up, turned on their cameras, and even unmuted to participate. Others joined faithfully off screen, contributed via the chat, and completed all of their assignments. Some attended sporadically. Some merely logged in and went back to sleep. Some never joined at all.

On Friday, I taught my last class of the semester, finalized my grades, and clicked submit. I loaded my laptop into a bag, prepared new seating charts for semester 2, tidied my home desk from three weeks’ worth of debris, and started wrapping my mind around heading back into the building.

Return #4 I have mixed emotions. I am happy I will get to see my students — the ones who faithfully logged on throughout January and the ones who I haven’t heard a peep out of since December. I’m encouraged that I will get to be with my colleagues — sitting at home alone in front of a screen for three weeks isn’t my idea of community. I am excited for the opportunity we have to finish the school year in person — Please, God, let it be so.

Also, I am tired. I am tired of the transitions. I am tired of the uncertainty. I am tired of re-setting expectations for my students every time we come back to the building — Stow your phones, put your mask over your nose and mouth, bring your laptop charged and ready to go, show up, opt in, work hard, and finish strong.

And, after a month (plus most of December) with our aging Chester, who has recently been on the decline, I am apprehensive about putting him in his crate, walking away, counting on his walker to visit midday, and only seeing him again in the late afternoon.

But overall, I am determined. I am determined, with all my complex emotions, to get up at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning, to prepare for my day, to put on professional clothing, to comb my hair, to warm up my vehicle, to drive twenty-eight miles, to lug my gear back into my classroom, to plug in all my devices, to project my Google slides on the screen, to play a little music, to stand at my door, and to welcome my students back.

I’m guessing they have complicated emotions, too. I’m not sure what they are, but perhaps we’ll start tomorrow with a little space to come together, to share, and to sit in the complexity together.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you

Psalm 55:22

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